SciFi Weekend: “Torchwood: Children of Earth”

Instead of a usual thirteen episode season, Torchwood was presented as a five part miniseries for five constructive evenings. Torchwood: Children of Earth was broadcast on the BBC last week and will appear on BBC America later this month as well as becoming available on DVD. The miniseries was a tremendous success both creatively and in terms of ratings and can be enjoyed by those who have not followed the first two seasons. After this recommendation, I must warn that this review contains major spoilers and I recommend that it not be read if you plan to watch the miniseries at a later date.

The miniseries was stronger by having to come up with only one alien menace and having time to both tell the story and develop the back stories of the characters. The romance between Jack and Ianto was further developed, making Ianto’s death in the fourth installment even more shocking. We also saw relatives of both, including Jack’s daughter who appeared older than the immortal Captain Jack, and a grandson. Gwen’s story was advanced as she learned she is pregnant.

The story began with aliens speaking through the children of earth and it came as no surprise to find that the conflict was over the alien desire to take ten percent of the children. As with many science fiction shows it is necessary to enjoy the story without giving too much thought to all the specifics, but such thoughts cannot be helped after wards. If the alien 456 could control the children, it would have been much simpler to have them march off to rendezvous points as opposed to forcing the governments to round them up.

The story had the feeling of The X-Files in dealing with government involvement with the aliens and attempts to cover up their past dealings with them. The decision of the government to kill those with knowledge of their previous deal with the 456  showed questionable judgement but it was easy to believe they would make such a choice. It would have been far smarter to enlist Torchwood to help find a way to fight the 456 as opposed to trying to kill an immortal such as Jack. We saw the members of Torchwood on the run from the authorities, also similar to portions of several seasons of 24.

Torchwood has always been a far darker series than Doctor Who, and this was even more the case with Children of Earth. Sacrifice and loss was a major theme. First Jack watched Ianto die.  Much of the show was seen from the perspective of Frobisher, a civil servant placed on the front lines in dealing with the 456 (primarily as this placed him as opposed to the Prime Minister at risk). The Prime Minister told Forbisher he must publicly turn his children over to the 456 so that others will see this as safe. The cover story was that the children were to receive inoculations to protect them, but actually the 456 use children to extract drugs which bring them pleasure.

Like the decision to try to destroy Torchwood, this was a poor choice as, knowing their fate Forbisher was unlikely to comply and might have jeopardized the transfer by going public with is knowledge. It is also questionable if seeing a  single civil servant send his children for the inoculations would have calmed any parents who were skeptical. While a poor choice, this was foreshadowed by the attitude of the Prime Minister towards Forbisher in previous meetings.  Instead of  going along, Forbisher killed his children, his wife, and then himself to spare his children the horrible fate. His decision was also ultimately the wrong one as the transfer of the children was stopped.

Stopping the transfer and defeating the children called for yet another sacrifice as a child was needed to beat the 456 by using the children of earth to transmit a reverse of the frequency that the 456 used to control the children. Jack knew the primary child used would die and the only child available at the base where he was working was his own grandson. This sacrifice meant the loss of his grandson, and probably the loss of any chance at reconciling with his daughter.

While this defeated the 456 for the moment, we do not really know whether they remain a threat. We only saw those already on earth be defeated, but we do not know if more will be coming. Perhaps this is just a renegade group after drugs and there are no more to threaten earth. It is also possible that there are other planets where they obtain similar children and, having been defeated on earth, will stick to easier targets. It is also questionable if the deal with the 456 would have turned out well. The 456 first came in 1965 and settled for twelve children. This time they said they would destroy all life on earth unless they received ten percent of the children. If they broke their promise and returned a second time, it is likely they would return again for more.

The miniseries leaves open the future of Torchwood. The series started with only three surviving members after the events of last season. This year Ianto died, Gwen may or may not continue working after having a child, and the final episode ended with Jack leaving earth. Even their headquarters was blown up. Some see this as the end of Torchwood but, considering the high ratings, I suspect there will be another series.

Most likely Jack will return, perhaps just as a new danger to earth is revealed, and  Gwen will join him. Lois Habiba, who assisted Torchwood during this episode, could easily join the team. Early on I thought that Dr. Rupesh Patanjali (seen in the above video clip) was going to be an addition to Torchwood but he did not survive. Martha Jones could  return if Freema Agyeman is available. They used the excuse of her honeymoon to explain her absence from this episode. If they return with a full season as opposed to a miniseries they could also develop new characters.

While the miniseries worked very well this year, it might be best to return to a regular thirteen episode format to rebuild both their facilities and a new team. If this does turn out to be the end of Torchwood, it was an excellent way to end the series.

Blinded By Hysteria About “Socialized Medicine”

Glenn Reynolds presents the usual conservative hysteria against health care reform.  He brings up the usual nonsense lines that reform will bring about “socialized medicine” as he writes about the benefits of modern health care while ignoring the problem that our system denies such care to tens of millions. He ignores the frustration of  those of us who practice medicine who realize how far we are falling behind the rest of the industrialized world in so many ways.

As I’ve stated many times in the past, you can tell that an article on health care reform is not worth reading when they bring up scare stories about Great Britain as a government run system of this type is not on the table here. The British system is opposed by virtually all supporters of health care reform. His arguments against “socialized medicine” and the British system may or may not be true, but they have no relevance with regards to the current health care debate. Those who rely on scare stories about “socialized medicine” are just avoiding a discussion of the real issues under consideration.

Of particular absurdity is his argument against preventive medicine because of examples where receiving preventive medicine might not have mattered. This has no bearing on the many cases we see of people who do die because they did not receive routine preventive medicine, or did not have coverage for routine treatment of chronic medical diseases.

I had seen this op-ed as not being worth any time commenting on after writing about the absurdity of equating health care reform with socialized medicine so many times in the past. Then I reached the last paragraph:

It’s ironic that the same Democrats who were pushing the medical prospects for stem-cell research during the last election are now pushing a program that will make such progress far less likely.

While the right claims that it is health care reform which will limit health care, this shows just one example how it has really been Democrats who in many ways have been pushing to expand health care choices and reduce interference from restrictive government regulations. Besides stem-cell research, we have also seen this as conservatives have tried to limit or ban abortion and birth control, and their interference in end of life decisions such as with Terri Schiavo.

Reynolds, with his hysteria about “socialized medicine” and lack of understanding of the harm caused by corporate medicine and practices of the insurance industry, sees irony in Democratic support for eliminating the restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. While his view that health care reform will make such progress any less likely are based upon his irrational views on the health care system, perhaps at least some readers will see his conclusion and question which side is really the one which is responsible for reducing health care choices in this country.

In Their Usual Corners

I’ve expressed reservations about Michael Moore’s upcoming movie on capitalism. My bet is that Moore will have come correct points about failures of capitalism as practiced which led to the financial crisis but he will also stick to his usual political views and fail to appreciate the many benefits of capitalism. The movie will also be attacked from the right–often by people who will stick to their longstanding views that treat capitalism more as a religion and fail to acknowledge any problems.

John Stossel argues that Michael Moore Gets It Wrong.  He falls back on quoting Reason which can be counted on to always cherry pick the facts to show that any problem is always caused by government intervention.

I have little use for those on the left or right who have a knee jerk reaction of defending their long-standing beliefs in such manners while ignoring any facts which show a need to revise their views. Rather than listening to either Moore or Stossel there are some other people I’d recommend here–all conservative or libertarian writers. I’m not saying they are always right, but I respect them for showing a willingness to revise their beliefs based upon the evidence. Such willingness to consider revise one’s views based upon the facts and changing situations also displays an essential component of true liberal thought.

Richard Posner, a long time supporter of the Chicago School, responded to the economic crisis by writing an excellent book, Capitalism in Crisis, which argues that the deregulation of the financial sector he previously supported did contribute to the crisis.

Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan, has written The Next Economics which argues that:

economic theories that may be perfectly valid at one moment in time under one set of circumstances tend to lose validity over time because they are misapplied under different circumstances. Bartlett makes a compelling, historically-based case for large tax increases, once anathema to him and his economic allies.

Stossel argues about this quotation:

The wealthy, at some point, decided they didn’t have enough wealth. They wanted more — a lot more. So they systematically set about to fleece the American people out of their hard-earned money.

On one level Stossel is right that this sounds ridiculous. Most people strive do obtain more wealth and you cannot fault the wealthy on this alone. Ultimately Stossel is the one who is ridiculous in stressing the wrong points and instead I would suggest the works of former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips. His books in recent years have shown where the Republicans have gone wrong, including how they have used government to transfer the wealth (and fleece the American people out of their hard-earned money).

The transfer of wealth which Phillips writes about is from the middle class to the ultra-wealthy. Such actions by Republicans  could be used as an example by libertarians of a problem caused by government, but in this case many libertarians back the Republicans on economics and are blind to this. Of course there are exceptions, such as Will Wilkinson who has written, “the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite.”

Advice For Bloggers

While the blogosphere itself was the major topic of discussion in the blogosphere in response to one post from last week which I commented on here, Felix Salmon gave some additional advice for bloggers on Friday. While discussing reasons for blogging he also warned about the time involved:

It takes up a lot of time, which means that there are significant opportunity costs associated with blogging. If you read a lot of blogs and news outlets anyway, then the marginal extra time commitment can come down, but it’s still substantial.

The last part is what makes it possible for many of us to blog. If I counted all the time reading then the time would sound overwhelming. While still time consuming, it takes far less time to write about material you would read regardless of whether you are blogging.

One question for bloggers is the optimal frequency of posting. I agree wtih Felix on this:

As always, there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality. Should you write more, with lower quality, or less, with higher quality? Fortunately, the blogosphere has been around for long enough that we have a simple empirical answer to this question: given the choice, go for quantity over quality. You might not like it — I certainly don’t — but I defy you to name a really good blogger who doesn’t blog frequently.

Often bloggers are the worst judges of their own work; I can give you hundreds of personal examples of blog entries I thought were really good which disappeared all but unnoticed, and of blog entries I thought were tossed-off throwaways which got enormous traction and distribution. Mostly, blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level — and if you want to win the lottery, your best chance of doing so is to maximize the number of lottery tickets you buy.

Personally, I’m not very happy about this fact. But it is a fact. And although I might gravitate towards those blogs in my RSS reader which have only one or two unread entries, I know that empirically speaking success in the blogging world is pretty much directly proportional to frequency of output. I thought RSS would change things. It didn’t. Ah well. And don’t worry about time of day, either: people read blogs at the craziest times, so once it’s written just put it up.

Posting several times a day helps build traffic as people are more likely to get in the habit of returning if they believe there will be more material. Receiving links is like a lottery as Felix suggests. Links do not necessarily come to the best blog posts. Sometimes you just get lucky when a larger blog happens to find something in a post and decides to link. Often a post which takes a long time to research and write will receive no links while a brief post which just provides a quick fact receives major links.

Of course blogging is a personal matter. If you only feel like blogging every few days that is your prerogative as long as you don’t mind how this will probably impact readership. Some bloggers do prefer to write one post a day and devote more time to increase its quality. Some of them do develop a following this way, but I suspect it is harder to do.

Comments are a unique aspect of blogs which make them different from opinion columns:

Another necessary quality of any decent conversationalist is that he or she be a good listener. The same goes for blogging — to a very large extent, blogging isn’t writing, it’s reading. I have hundreds of blogs in my RSS reader, I use Google Alerts and other tools to let me know what other people are saying about me, I spend a lot of time reading my comments, and of course I read lots of other blogs avidly. Blogging, certainly the way I do it, is to a large degree about synthesizing information — connecting this news article here to that blog entry there, putting things into context, and making connections. And so although I produce a lot of content, I consume orders of magnitude more.

I like to say that the main difference between bloggers and professional journalists is that while journalists tend to think of a news article as the end of the journalistic process, bloggers tend to think of a blog entry as the beginning of a conversation…

And another part of being generous: leave comments on your own blog, and on other people’s blogs. Doing so is in no way below you.

The discussion in comments can add value to a blog and comments on other blogs can help bring traffic to one’s own blog. Comments are not under the direct control of the blogger as they depend on what others add, but they still must be considered part of the material of a blog and reflect on its overall quality. While some start with the notion that everyone should be allowed to comment freely, bloggers of any size soon learn that it is necessary to weed out both the spammers and the trolls.

An unmoderated comment section can quickly turn into a stream of insults and a shouting match without any coherent discussion. Some bloggers respond by going too far by ending comments altogether, deleting all comments which disagree with them, or limiting comments to a fixed group of like minded people. I would suggest moderation based more on the tone of comments as opposed to restricting disagreement. Definitely beware during political campaigns of those who attack blogs en masse which support a different candidate. Organized attacks of this nature were a particular problem with many of the Ron Paul supporters in 2007 but also occurs to a lesser degree with many other candidates.

Responding to comments also gets back to the issue of time. In earlier blogs before I started this one I would spend far more time debating those with different viewpoints, but ultimately learned this is a poor use of time. This both causes blogging to infringe too much on other matters, and is also not the best use of time allocated to working on a blog. While thousands read a main blog post from RSS readers and syndication, a much smaller number read the comments. While it is worthwhile to spend some time responding in comments, it is a waste of time to engage in lengthy debates. Before getting a paying job as a blogger at The Washington Monthy, Steve Benen ran The Carpetbagger Report. The FAQ includes a sensible policy:

I’m a conservative Republican who disagrees with everything you write. Can I contact you to begin a lengthy debate?

For the love of God, no. I appreciate spirited discourse as much as the next guy, but I’m afraid I’m not looking for a debate opponent right now.

One problem is that such debates never end. Every week there are new people who want to argue that Saddam really did have WMD,  creationism is a sensible alternative to the science of evolution, the scientific consensus on global warming is wrong, abortion is the killing of babies, the Founding Fathers did not really intend for the United States to have separation of church and state,  Barack Obama is not an American citizen, or whatever Fox or Rush Limbaugh is talking about that day is true. It is not worth the time to debate each new person who raises the same arguments, especially as those who hold such beliefs are not likely to change their minds regardless of how strong the facts contradict their views.

I also agree with Felix on this point:

I should mention at this point another one of my slogans: “the object of quality in a blog is not the individual blog entry, it’s the blog itself”. Every so often some meta-media organization decides that it needs to get with the online world and make bloggers eligible for its prizes. There’s invariably an application form of some description, which asks you to present your best blog entries; those blog entries will then be read by the judges to determine which blog is the best.

This is of course ridiculous. There are great bloggers who do little more than link to other people: no one blog entry is worth much at all, but the aggregation and editing function is invaluable.

It is always difficult when asked to provide one blog post for a compilation due to the nature of most blogs. A blog is better judged by the sum of the posts on a topic which will be far better than any individual post. This is especially true when a blog is covering a topic with a series of posts over one or more days.

Another question faced by bloggers is whether to place an entire post in a RSS feed or to use a teaser paragraph to get people to link to your blog. Felix addresses this question:

You’re doing this because you want people to read your work. So make that as easy for them as possible. If they want you to email it to them, email it to them. If they want to read it on Seeking Alpha or Huffington Post, then post it there. If they want to read it in their RSS reader, then make sure you publish a full RSS feed. And if someone else flatters you by copying your stuff, be happy, not angry. You’re not doing this for the pageviews, you’re doing this to be read.

Again I agree. Requiring those who read the RSS feed to click through to read the full post will probably increase traffic but it is more important to be read than to have a higher number of page views. While limiting RSS feeds to teasers will increase the number of page views, others will stop reading the RSS feed at the point where the post ends. They might even drop a blog from a RSS reader if they are not seeing full posts to read.

It is also worthwhile to have posts quoted elsewhere. Of course those doing such quoting should give credit to the original source and link back.